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date: 06 December 2023

Muslim–Buddhist Relations and Buddhism in Muslim Sources until the Mongol Periodfree

Muslim–Buddhist Relations and Buddhism in Muslim Sources until the Mongol Periodfree

  • Anna Ayse AkasoyAnna Ayse AkasoyDepartment of Classical and Oriental Studies, CUNY Graduate Center


The history of Muslim–Buddhist relations has long been underexplored or been dominated by impressions of hostility. Recent scholarship has revealed a long history of contacts, often against the backdrop of trade, mission, and imperial expansion. How early these encounters took place and what their earliest shape was depends on views regarding the westward spread of Buddhism, the religious landscape of pre-Islamic Iran, and the nature of early Islam. Medieval Muslim authors sometimes associated the religious traditions of pre-Islamic Arabia with Buddhism or Indian religions in general. The early Abbasid period (8th–10th centuries) was especially significant for the development of Muslim knowledge of Buddhism. Details about the religion, including descriptions of the Bamiyan Buddhas and religious practices, can be found especially in geographical and historiographical literature, but also book catalogues and surveys of different religions. The family of the Barmakids, formerly keepers of the Buddhist Naw Bahār in Balkh, rose to great power at the Abbasid court and represents the integration of Buddhist elites into the cosmopolitan caliphate. A version of the Life of the Buddha, known as the story of Bilawhar and Būdhāsaf, began to circulate in the Middle East at around the same time. One of the difficulties in assessing Muslim descriptions of Buddhism is to reconstruct and historicize categories of religion and religious taxonomies.


  • Buddhism

At first glance, Buddhism and Islam seem incompatible at a very fundamental level. The one God in Islam has no Buddhist equivalent. Buddhist and Islamic notions of time are diametrically opposed to each other: circular and linear. Buddhist figurative art is abhorred by many Muslims. Monasticism is one of the pillars of Buddhism, but categorically rejected in the Islamic tradition. Orientalist representations pit the violence of medieval fundamentalists against the enlightened rationalism of proto-secularists. Throughout the history of their contacts and in the present day, interactions between followers of both religions appear to reflect and confirm this antagonism. The demise of Indian Buddhism is regularly explained as the result of Muslim invasions. More lately, the Taliban infamously destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas in front of a global audience, while Buddhist monks launch attacks against Muslims in Southeast Asia.

Recent scholarship, however, has cast doubt on the veracity of some of these accounts and on the representative nature of the conflicts and antagonistic attitudes. It has also revealed the extent to which Buddhists and Muslims enjoy a shared history of manifold encounters, often peaceful and often culturally productive, sometimes in the same social spaces. Academic traditions in the West, especially area studies, have long separated the study of Islam and the Middle East on the one hand and Buddhism and Asia on the other. As these boundaries are becoming more porous again with increasing collaborations, surveys of historical encounters between Muslims and Buddhists gain in substance. Among premodern eras, the Mongol period has received the lion’s share of scholarly attention. Religious contacts are often explored against the backdrop of trade, patronage, and the transmission of knowledge in other areas such as the sciences.

A complication in any historical survey of Buddhist–Muslim relations is that chronologies do not produce linear narratives. While in some areas Muslims assumed power where Buddhists had been predominant, in other cases, such as Tibet, Islam spread into territories which only later became Buddhist. The convergence of religious, geographical, and political references thus shifted over time, but even if we should not assume too easily that a reference to Indians or Tibetans is also a reference to Buddhists, such relationships still constitute an important backdrop for religious contacts more strictly speaking. Historically, one of the greatest problems is to determine whether Muslim literary references are to Indian religions in general or to a more specific tradition such as Buddhism. Even a term so seemingly obviously referring to Buddhism such as budd, used in Arabic for an idol or a temple, has been applied to Buddhist as well as other Indian religious institutions.1 Terms used by Muslims for Buddhists can be inconsistent and confusing. Another challenge is to historicize concepts of religion and the different forms in which religious identities became manifest in historical societies. Thus, what exactly in an encounter between a Muslim and a Buddhist qualifies as a Muslim–Buddhist encounter is not always obvious. Western scholarship has long disproportionately emphasized the religious identities of Muslims. As a result, the analysis of actions and objects associated with Muslims has been overdetermined by religious categories. The following survey will focus on examples where religious identities appear to be especially relevant even if these capture only a fraction of interactions between Muslims and Buddhists.

The First Encounter

The history of Islam begins with Muhammad’s movement in early 7th-century western Arabia. After the death of their prophet in 632, Muslims rapidly conquered vast areas of the late antique world. By the 660s, Islamic rule had spread from modern-day Tunisia to modern-day Afghanistan. Less than a century later, Muslim armies had brought most of the Iberian Peninsula under their control, begun a long history of expansion into the Indian subcontinent, and fought Chinese forces at the River Talas. As Muslims advanced eastwards, they entered deeper into territories in which Buddhism enjoyed a significant and continuous presence. The cities of Marw and Balkh, which had come under Muslim rule by the beginning of the 8th century, illustrate this well. Accounts of Buddhist pilgrims serve as testimonies to the presence of this religion in India and Central Asia at the eve of the Muslim conquests. The Chinese Xuanzang, who traveled from 627 to 645, is an oft-quoted source for the presence of Buddhism in the region. He “recorded an extensive Buddhist presence in several areas. By his reckoning Bamiyan in Afghanistan had 10,000 monks, the area of Sind had four hundred and sixty monasteries, and the coastal region toward Iran had one hundred and eighty monasteries with 11,000 monks.”2 The lesser-known Korean pilgrim Hyecho visited the area as a young man from 724 to 727. His account, brief and preserved in fragments, offers insights into the impact of Muslim incursions into Sind, but confirms in other cases the decline of Buddhist life before these invasions. His references to Persia and Arabia suggest that he may have traveled further west than any of the more famous Buddhist pilgrims, perhaps as the first Buddhist to encounter Muslims on their own turf, so to speak, but whether he actually visited these regions or what these geographical references meant is uncertain.3

The Arab-Muslim conquests unfolded as part of a larger cultural revolution in which a new empire (the caliphate) and a new religion (Islam) entered the stage of world history. Against the backdrop of these transformations, a new intellectual and literary culture flourished as well, and it increasingly manifested itself in written form and in Arabic. Because of all these circumstances, when considering Muslim encounters with Buddhists during the first two centuries or so of Islamic history, there is significantly more information available which is also based on more extensive evidence about later than earlier encounters. The further Muslims moved towards the East, the greater the likelihood to encounter Buddhists, but also the greater the likelihood that accounts of encounters were recorded and survived until today. Significant uncertainties, however, persist even in cases of documentation. The extent to which these individuals recognized each other as Muslims and Buddhists, respectively, what they may have made of such affiliations, and how they may have reported any such observations to others remains subject to speculation.

In recent representations, accounts of the earliest encounters vary considerably. The precise circumstances under which Muslims were first exposed to Buddhism or Buddhists and vice versa depend on historiographical commitments concerning the religious milieu in which Islam emerged, how far Buddhism spread to the west, and its continuous presence in these western regions. Iran is typically considered the western endpoint of Buddhism’s expansion, although in recent scholarship a variety of Buddhist influences on Graeco-Roman intellectual life have been debated.4 Depending on one’s stance toward these theories, an impact of such views on Arabic-Islamic philosophy by way of Greek intermediaries might be a possibility. (For a discussion of this tradition, see the section entitled “Encounters during the Abbasid Empire.”) Other examples of such mediated traces are Buddhist elements in Manichaeism, a religion known to Muslims possibly even before the first expansions into Iraq, and the legacy of Zoroastrian iconography and architecture which in Eastern Iran had been subject to Buddhist influences.5 These examples belong to a larger category of Buddhist–Iranian entanglements in the pre-Islamic period, located especially in the Iranian-Indian border region.6 How much Mediterranean and Middle Eastern Christians retained of any familiarity with Buddhism that circulated among early Christian authors, whether they shared any of this knowledge with Muslims or used it in any way if they converted to Islam also remains uncertain.

Structural, social, and ideological explanations for the fate of Buddhism in its western regions often determine how scholars approach the relationship between Buddhism and Islam in general. Among the reasons Erik Seldeslachts suggested for the end of this westward spread was the absence of robust, especially state patronage for Buddhists, but also configurations of trade networks and finally the rise of Christianity in the late Roman Empire.7 Whatever Buddhist communities existed in the Middle East, these were presumably small and only sustained by the support of merchants. (The aforementioned Hyecho even stated that Buddhism was unknown in Persia.) Likewise, in his Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road, Johan Elverskog considered the control over state resources and trade networks critical for geographical shifts in Muslim–Buddhist encounters and any repercussions for mutual perceptions.

The prominence of the toponym Naw Bahār has been adduced as evidence of the widespread presence of Buddhists and their monastic institutions in Iran just before the Arab-Muslim conquests. (Naw Bahār, “new monastery,” reflects the Sanskrit nava vihāra.) While the best known of these institutions was located in Balkh, Richard Bulliet has identified a whole set of such toponyms along trade routes in northeastern Iran and suggested that these “new monasteries” represented a distinctly Iranian branch of Buddhism.8 In recent scholarship, literary sources are often probed with the help of archaeological evidence, a method which might be pursued in this case as well. Independent of the state of Naw Bahārs at the time of Muslim conquests, however, and the degree of destruction, it remains unclear just how “readable” these Buddhist sites were to the Muslim outsiders.

That the physical configurations of places can be ambiguous is also obvious in the case of two archaeological sites on the Persian Gulf. The cave complexes in Chehelkhāneh and Qalʿat-i Ḥaydarī have been interpreted by some scholars as Buddhist monasteries, although others have argued that these were in fact Christian structures.9 Despite the oppression in the Sassanian Empire, which upheld Zoroastrianism as a state religion from the 3rd century onwards, both communities survived in Iran into Islamic times. That Buddhism would have spread by way of maritime trade into the Persian Gulf is consistent with larger patterns of the diffusion of Buddhism through trade.10 (See “Maritime Buddhism.”) Likewise, it seems plausible that Buddhist objects circulated west of the Indian Ocean. Discussing the journey of a Buddhist statue to the Middle East during the 9th century, Deborah Klimburg-Salter emphasized the general mobility of such objects, an observation which obtains in earlier periods as well.11 Finbarr B. Flood has discussed the different functions of mobile objects in Hindu–Muslim contexts. An important area are Buddhist and Hindu idols sent by local Muslim rulers at the frontier to the Abbasid caliphs in Baghdad. These objects, like many others, allowed for the construction of different meanings and translation across cultural milieus. In addition to serving Muslim rulers as statements in internal competitions, “these tokens of victory also permitted a vicarious participation in the territorial expansion of the Islamic world.”12 Their symbolic and material values were intertwined. Echoing efforts to remove economically unproductive gold from Islamic sacred spaces and objects, Buddhist idols were reportedly broken up and distributed for charity. Flood’s study serves as an important reminder that while Muslims may have typically encountered Buddhists while moving eastwards, Buddhist individuals and objects moved westwards as a result of the Muslim expansion.

Critical questions concern the state of these remains at the eve of the Islamic conquests and how widely Buddhist individuals, views, and objects may have spread westward beyond the area in which their presence can be documented. Only a small number of modern authors have made a case for Buddhist influences on Islam during the earliest days of Muhammad’s movement in Mecca and Medina.13 According to these views, the presence of Buddhist traders in the region of the Persian Gulf might have extended to the western shores of the Arabian Peninsula. An extensive network of trade routes and the proximity of Mecca to Red Sea ports lead to the impression that Muhammad’s home region was very much connected with diverse cultural centers. Muslim religious and historical traditions about pre- and early Islamic times compiled in around the 9th century contain anecdotes about idols kept in the Kaʿba or its treasure which some modern historians have interpreted as Buddhist sculpture. Arguments about religious influence on emerging Islam often seek to undermine claims of originality. It was already the British administrator and art historian Ernest Binfield Havell (1861–1934) who took an interest in a story about a painting of the Virgin Mary with Jesus on her lap, which according to the Islamic tradition had existed in the Kaʿba where it survived into the Islamic period. According to Havell, this painting, however, may in fact have been a representation of the Buddhist deity Hāritī and her partner.14 Havell included in his Handbook of Indian Art of 1920 a more general account of Buddhist influences on Islamic architecture along similar lines, suggesting that the mosque was inspired by Buddhist temples.15 Architectural elements which had originally served as niches for idols eventually turned into mihrabs indicating the direction of prayer. In domestic contexts, such niches were later used as “cupboards or receptacles for the hookah, rose-water vessel, lamp, or other articles of domestic use.”16

While such theories about a Buddhist presence in western Arabia at the eve of Islam remain marginal in modern scholarship, several medieval Muslim authors commented on the similarities between Arabian and Indian religious practice more generally and developed their own theories of Indian influences. In his Book of Idols (Kitāb al-aṣnām), for example, Ibn al-Kalbī (737–c. 820) suggested that idolatry had first emerged in India, but that when the deluge came, the waves transported these objects to Arabia.17 Likewise, the 11th-century Persian historian Gardīzī compared Mecca and Somanātha as places for religious veneration. To his mind, these similarities were grounded in a historical connection for the temple in Somanātha “contained numerous idols of gold and silver, and the idol Manāt, which had been transported from the Kaʿba by way of Aden in the time of the Lord of the World (i.e., Muḥammad), was there.”18 Proponents of Buddhist influences on early Islam have also commented on ritual circumambulation which is prominent in both religions. Again, this similarity had already attracted attention among medieval Muslim authors such as Ibn al-Kalbī. In the early 9th century, Abū Ḥafṣ ʿUmar al-Kirmānī, author of a history of the Barmakids, a family of Buddhist converts who gained influence at the Abbasid court (see section entitled “Encounters during the Abbasid Empire”), made similar comparisons.

Theories about Buddhist references in the Qur’an, on the other hand, do not appear to proliferate in the premodern period. In modern accounts, a somewhat mysterious figure by the name of Dhū ‘l-Kifl is occasionally identified with the Buddha based on the supposition that Kifl is derived from Kapilavastu, the birthplace of Siddhārtha Gautama. This, however, is a marginal view. Several passages in the Qur’an reflect the presence of prized substances from India such as camphor (Arabic: kāfūr), ginger (Arabic: zanjabīl) and musk (Arabic: misk) in Muhammad’s historical environment and thus some form of historical contact. None of these references, however, point to any significance of Indian religious ideas of practices, Buddhist or otherwise, in this milieu.

The Arab-Muslim Conquests

As mention in the section, The First Encounter, Most modern scholars date the first extensive encounters between Muslims and Buddhists to the period of the Arab-Muslim conquests in the Iranian-Indian borderlands, especially Sind. It is accordingly in the textual sources for these conquests that the earliest Muslim references to Buddhists typically appear, although a systematic and consistent distinction between Buddhists and Indians in general is usually absent. Historical and geographical works offer short descriptions of religious sites, practices, and beliefs and refer to religious communities. Two elements typically function as markers of religious practice and space: idols and monasteries or temples.

Polemical and hostile responses to Islam have long overdetermined explanations for the spread of Muhammad’s movement, which has been seen as overwhelmingly violent. This is the case among Christians as much as among Buddhists and in both cases historical perceptions have left a powerful imprint on later historiography. Challenging the prevalence of narratives about the disappearance of Buddhism from India as a consequence of the Muslim conquests, Audrey Truschke has pointed out that the Muslim sources on which these accounts rely are ambiguous in the details and follow literary conventions which makes literal readings highly problematic.19 Any understanding of Buddhist–Muslim relations during the conquest period also has to confront the asymmetry of preserved sources. Hardly any Buddhist sources have come down to us which would illustrate Buddhist attitudes to Islam during those years and Muslim sources reflect the point of view of the conquerors.

In more recent scholarship, peaceful modes of diffusion and conversion have received greater attention. Indeed, the ways by which Buddhism and Islam spread are very similar, especially in their reliance on traders, as emphasized by Silk Road historians.20 Within the realm of political expansion, conquests were often conducted by way of peace treaty rather than military defeat. Milka Levy-Rubin has shown that conquered populations in the Middle East played an active role in the surrender treaties. Preexisting imperial structures in the late antique world were often continued under new regimes. Whether similar patterns can be identified further to the East and whether there was anything distinctly Buddhist about any role that conquered Buddhists may have played in these events is subject to further research.21 An example which could be analyzed in such a context is the opening episode of the Muslim conquest of northwest India. In 711/712, Muslim armies under Muḥammad ibn al-Qāsim al-Thaqafī attacked the port city of Daybul in Sind, according to medieval Muslim historians, because pirates had captured a ship with Muslim passengers. The historian and geographer Yaʿqūbī (d. 897) reports that a sacred site was the main target of the attack. The local budd, forty cubits high, was bombarded with a mangonel and shattered.22 Based on the record of another historian, al-Balādhurī (820–892), this budd has been interpreted as a Buddhist stūpa. Derryl MacLean, however, has argued that based on archaeological evidence and the ambiguity of the word budd, this may have been a Śaiva temple. (How contemporaneous Muslims would have understood the difference, if at all, is unclear.) Emphasizing the difference between the local ruling authorities and Buddhists of Daybul and based on the later testimony of the Chachnāma, MacLean pointed out that while the former assumed no responsibility for the pirates’ aggression, the Buddhists apologized to the Muslims and established a treaty with their authorities. These Buddhists were also instrumental in the eventual Muslim conquest of Daybul, presumably having recognized their own advantage in this situation.23

This rebalancing is not meant to deny the use of brutal force during conquests or the suffering of those who were defeated. But highlighting precisely that force was one of the conventions of history writing as well. A case is point is the 1026 attack on the Śaiva temple of Somanātha under Maḥmūd of Ghazna (971–1030), an account which is modeled after stories of the prophet Muhammad’s cleansing of the Kaʿba of idols.24 Muslim authors of conquest narratives had an interest in emphasizing the impact of these conquests, measured to some extent by the amount of violence and destruction, here especially of emblematic religious architecture and objects. To separate literary trope from reality can be a challenge, although in some cases, Arabic conquest narratives can be compared with records in other sources as well as archaeological evidence. Such studies have been conducted for the Middle East, but they can be extended into Central and South Asia. Al-Balādhurī, for example, explains that the Naw Bahār in Balkh was destroyed by the Muslim conquerors in the mid-7th century.25 The geographer Ibn al-Faqīh, however, who also flourished in the second half of the 9th century, offered a detailed description of the Naw Bahār. The passage suggests that some of the Buddhist architecture in the city mentioned by Xuanzang almost three centuries earlier survived into the Islamic era, a theory that can be substantiated based on archaeological findings.26 Evidence from several places in Sind confirms that Indian religious communities continued their practices well into the Islamic period.27

Just how much Muslim authors associated the larger Indian, Central Asian, and Buddhist world with idolatry is obvious in conquest narratives where such objects loom large as symbols of religious identity and domination. An oft-quoted account of the expansion of Arab-Muslim power into Central Asia describes a golden idol a king of Tibet sent to the Abbasid caliph al-Maʾmūn (813–833) upon his conversion to Islam. Initially sent to the capital Baghdad, like the idols in other, similar anecdotes, the object was then displayed in Mecca and later included in the treasury of the Kaʿba. Based on art historical sources, Deborah Klimburg-Salter has reconstructed the features of this object, aligning literary description and material evidence.28 The king in question was presumably the Kabul Shāh who submitted to the Abbasids in 812–813. As Christopher Beckwith has established, this ruler was a vassal of the king of Tibet at the time in question, but contemporaneous Arabic sources often operate with large and somewhat inaccurate categories.29

The Theology of Religious Practice

Terms and concepts associated with idolatry have left a larger imprint in Islamic theology and literature about religions other than Islam. While ṣanam and wathan are regularly used in Arabic literature to denote “idol,” including in Indian contexts, a term more clearly etymologically connected with Buddhism is budd. The word is related to the Persian bot which itself is rooted in “buddha,” although the exact relationship between the Arabic and Persian terms has been reconstructed in different ways.30 Unlike ṣanam which is used in a wide range of geographical and religious environments, budd and bot more commonly describe objects of worship in Central Asia or India. Buddhism is often conflated with other religions, as in descriptions of the attack on Daybul. Likewise, in his Kitāb al-tanbīh wa’l-ishrāf, the encyclopedist al-Masʿūdī (895–957) discussed beliefs surrounding the Buddha in the context of the Hindu temple of Multan which attracted great interest among Muslim authors for its gold.31 While the term budd thus has a more generic definition than the Buddha or images of the Buddha, it can be used in these specific meanings.32 In Arabic, budd can also designate a temple, perhaps by extension. This twofold ambiguity—the nature of the object and its religious affiliation—accounts for the difficulty in identifying the nature of the temple in Daybul destroyed by Muslim forces in the early 8th century. Furthermore, al-Balādhurī describes Muḥammad ibn al-Qāsim as contemplating the religious status and function of the temple, concluding that it corresponded to the churches of Christians and Jews and the Zoroastrian fire-temples, illustrating the manner in which religious objects were embedded in social contexts. This observation may be a back-projection of later legal developments, specifically the regulations for the maintenance and construction of sacred sites of non-Muslims.33

Arabic authors such as the litterateur al-Jāḥiẓ (d. 868) or the lexicographer Ibn Durayd (837–933) assumed that budd was simply an Indian name for “idol.” In Persian literature, the theme of bot as an idol became intertwined with the trope of the beautiful Turk. Conventional representations of this idealized human beauty, especially the round, moon-like face, bring to mind later Buddhist statue and betray a lasting legacy of Buddhism in Persian literature. References to budd can be found in other contexts as well.34 As early as al-Masʿūdī, Muslim authors referred to a type of musk which they called buddī. Musk, a substance used for perfumery as well as medicine and cooking, was typically imported from Tibet, China, and India. The buddī type was considered weak since according to the explanation of the medieval authors, this kind of musk had been rubbed on statues and was only sold after it had been removed and replaced by fresh and more fragrant musk.

While some Muslim authors displayed a quasi-ethnographic interest in Indian religions, seeking to describe and explain noteworthy features, religions were also classified for legal reasons, as al-Balādhurī’s reference to Muḥammad ibn al-Qāsim indicates. The Qur’anic regulations of rights and obligations of non-Muslims under Islamic rule reflected the religious landscape of the prophet Muhammad’s western Arabian environment. With the conquests of the 7th and 8th centuries and further developments of Islamic law, however, these categories were modified to accommodate the diverse religious realities of much larger territories. The distinction between “people of the book,” mostly understood to equal Jews and Christians, who were allowed to practice their religion under Muslim rule, and other religions, was hardly upheld outside of Arabia. (People who qualified for this status as tolerated religious community were referred to as dhimmī.) Muslim legal scholars disagreed in their interpretation and application of the distinction between protected and other religious communities and in their classification of religious communities not mentioned in the Qur’an. While some emphasized the differences among non-Muslims, others such as al-Awzāʿī (d. 774) determined that all non-Muslims who were not “people of the book” were “Majūs,” a term originally denoting Zoroastrians. Accordingly, Muslim authors sometimes identified Majūs in areas well beyond the historical homelands of Zoroastrianism. Apart from pursuing purposes of classification, they may have recognized similarities in certain rituals.

Further complications arise from historical notions of religion. Medieval Muslim writers do not display a homogeneous understanding of such a concept. While some evidence points to a narrow sense of religion as true religion, other references imply an understanding of religion as a universal category. Mālik ibn Anas (711–795), eponym of the Maliki legal school of Sunni Islam, spoke of “those among the Turks and Indians who did not have a religion (dīn).”35 It is unclear whom he had in mind and whether Buddhists would have qualified as having a religion at all and separate from Hindus. What set religious communities apart from Muslims was regularly of greater interest than what defined them in positive terms. Among those classified as polytheists or idolaters, legal scholars frequently distinguished Arabs who were not granted any tolerance, from non-Arabs who were often allowed to maintain their religion and pay the jizya, a tax imposed on “people of the book.” Critically, followers of both the Maliki and the Hanafi legal schools, which prevailed among Muslims in India, held such views. The heterogeneous responses to Indian religions in Islamic legal literature correspond to the mixed responses in practice. There is no indication that Buddhism received a different treatment than other Indian religions.

Encounters during the Abbasid Empire

Buddhist–Muslim encounters during the earliest days of the Islamic empire and under the Umayyad dynasty (661–749) read like a prelude to one of the high points of these contacts. Under the Abbasids, who ruled the Islamic empire from c. 750, encounters intensified. The aforementioned episodes of objects sent from the eastern borderlands belong to this period. Records of Muslim–Buddhist contacts and information about Buddhism in general were now also committed to writing in Arabic. Earlier accounts may very well have existed, but they have not come down to us. The different modes of encounter determined what kind of description was presented and in which textual genres. Likewise, the general subject matter of a text framed the representation of Buddhists and Buddhism. Conquest narratives are an important case in point. The significance of trade in the Abbasid Empire is obvious in geographical literature. The caliphs in Baghdad had an interest in the world they dominated. Cartography flourished as a consequence, although as a visual parallel to geographical literature it offers very little details about the religious landscape of medieval Eurasia. While these sources offer important insights into contacts between Muslims and Buddhists, the significance of their respective religious identities is less certain.

Many of these different forms of contact came together in the imperial center Baghdad. The caliphal capital was the heart of Abbasid political and administrative organization. The armies were controlled from Baghdad, reporting and decision-making converging at the ruler’s court. The new empire offered new opportunities. From across the realm, old and new elites were attracted to the capital which became a cosmopolitan metropolis of the medieval world. As the heart of political power, Baghdad also became an economic center with wealthy elites demanding high-prestige goods from distant places.

Knowledge was another of these high-prestige goods. That the elite culture of Baghdad was cosmopolitan has long been acknowledged in scholarship. The transmission of knowledge across languages, cultures, and ages has been studied especially as exemplified by the Graeco-Arabic translation movement. As mentioned in the section, The First Encounter, Elements of Buddhist thought might have entered the Islamic Middle East through this avenue, although there is little evidence that these elements would have been recognizable as Buddhist. Persian knowledge too was prestige knowledge and offers another possible arena for mediated Buddhist influences. In recent years, historians have paid increasing attention to India as another prestige culture and translations from Sanskrit into Arabic, often via Persian. Evidence points to a transmission of astronomical and mathematical knowledge, with greater uncertainties attaching to medicine.36 The best known case in literature is probably the stories of the Pañcatantra which circulated under the title Kalila and Dimna.37 The Sanskrit original had been translated into Middle Persian in the late Sassanian period, which served Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ (c. 721–c. 756) as a source for his Arabic version, itself the source of subsequent translations into a variety of languages of the medieval Mediterranean and Eurasia. Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ’s version included a chapter that reflects Buddhist criticisms of Brahmans, but most of collection is not Buddhist. However, the wide circulation of this text illustrates that Buddhist ideas and texts too could have been disseminated in the Middle East. Arabic–Sanskrit contacts were not confined to the center of the empire, as bilingual coins from Sind illustrate.38

Another path on which knowledge about Buddhism, Buddhist views and traditions traveled to the heartlands of the Abbasid Empire was by way of Buddhists who converted to Islam and migrated westwards. If other geographical areas and religious communities can be taken as a representative pattern, conversion to Islam was presumably initially slow and then accelerated. Conversion was typically not the result of force, but rather of acculturation and appealing for the opportunities for social ascent. It is not unlikely that conversion to Islam was more attractive to some than to others. Among Christians in medieval Iberia, for example, male converts benefited a great deal more from increased opportunities for social ascent than women.39 It seems plausible that in Central and South Asia like in other areas under Muslim rule these conversions produced religiously mixed families and that the “transition” of a family from Buddhism to Islam occurred over several generations.

The celebrities among Buddhist converts to Islam were the Barmakids, so named after the title Barmak, according to one theory derived from the Sanskrit pramukha (“leader”), perhaps via a Bactrian intermediary.40 Originally keepers of the Naw Bahār in Balkh, the Barmakids had enjoyed influence in pre-Abbasid times. The circumstances of the Barmakids’ conversion to Islam are controversial. One account has a Barmak become a Muslim during the caliphate of ʿUthmān (644–656). Upon his return to Balkh, he was killed and his son, also to become the Barmak, was initially raised a Buddhist and enjoyed Buddhist learning in Kashmir. He too then converted to Islam and joined the Umayyad court in Syria where his son Khālid grew up. Following Khālid ibn Barmak’s involvement in the Abbasid revolution, the family rose to such power at the Abbasid court that historians speak of a decade of the Barmakids, although the extent to which the family’s power was grounded in their Buddhist history is disputed.41 Khālid himself is among those credited with the round design of the newly founded Abbasid capital Baghdad, established in 762, and the only one credited with an active role in the city’s construction. Notably Christopher Beckwith has recognized in the round design a Buddhist legacy.42 In recent historical scholarship, the family’s cultural impact has received attention, in particular the role of Khālid’s son Yaḥyā. Kevin van Bladel has revealed his critical role for the transmission of Sanskrit knowledge into Arabic and Johan Elverskog credits the family with being a main reason for a shift in the orientation of Islam toward the East.43

Just how familiar Yaḥyā ibn Khālid was with the culture of his family’s ancestral homeland remains uncertain, but we are told that he sent a mission to India in order to retrieve medicinal plants and information about Indian religions. Quotations from the resulting report of Buddhist religious practices are luckily preserved in the Fihrist, a catalogue of books with elaborations on content compiled by the 10th-century Baghdadi bookseller al-Nadīm.44 The passage is one of the most important premodern testimonies to Muslim perceptions of Buddhism. (Al-Nadīm refers to Buddhists as Sumaniyya, for which see the second part of this article, “Muslim-Buddhist Relations from the Mongols to the Present.”)

Al-Nadīm declares that he read a copy of the account on Indian religions in the handwriting of the philosopher al-Kindī (c. 801–870), a key figure in the Graeco-Arabic translation movement and the rise of Arabic philosophy. This in itself is remarkable since it suggests an interest in India well outside the circle of people who hailed from the East or had a substantially documented interest in the East. Buddhist influences on al-Kindī’s philosophical and scientific works are not a well-represented subject of research. The bookseller also tells us that he considers Yaḥyā ibn Khālid a reliable source given the Barmakids’ well-known interest in India, especially its medical traditions. In fact, in al-Nadīm’s catalogue, the quotations from this report stand at the beginning of the section on India and constitute a large part of it. The first quotation describes a landscape of religious sites, including objects. In Mānkīr, there are twenty thousand idols made from precious materials. The king visits the temple every year. The report singles out a golden idol on a throne under a golden dome and describes human sacrifices made in front of this idol as they are at other sites. We can then read a detailed description of the Bamiyan Buddhas. According to the report, they are called Junbukt and Zunbukt. The description will still sound familiar to modern readers: “Their forms are cared out of the sides of a great valley, cut from the rock of the mountain. The height of each one of them is eighty cubits, so that they can be seen from a great distance.”45 Worshippers are meant to approach the statues with great respect. Here too, human sacrifices take place. The author also mentions a temple with precious idols and that such objects were sent to Baghdad at the time of the Arab invasions. Al-Nadīm notices some disagreements about the location of certain temples and records his own efforts to establish the details, here adducing the authority of the contemporaneous traveler Abū Dulaf.

While so far the account speaks of Indian religions, sites, and objects in a generic sense, the next passage in the Fihrist offers the earliest Muslim description of Buddhist doctrine. Using again a different, but unspecified source than the report for the Barmakid, al-Nadīm explains that Indians disagree about the nature of the Buddha—here, the Arabic word al-budd is an unambiguous reference to the Buddha.

One group assumed that the budd was the image of the Creator, may His greatness be exalted. Another group said that he was the image of his messenger to them. Then they disagreed at this point. One group said that the messenger was one of the angels. Another group stated that the messenger was a man among the people. Another group said that he was one of the demons (ʿifrīt). Another group said that the budd was the image of Būdāsaf the wise, who came to them from God, may his name be glorified.46

Like other Muslim writers about Buddhism, al-Nadīm or his source used Islamic categories in order to make discussions among Buddhists understandable to Muslim readers. The taxonomy of God, angels, messenger, and demons is common in Islamic thought. Theologians distinguished prophets, a potentially very large category, from prophets who had received a revelation and were accordingly known as “messengers.” The messenger in the Islamic tradition is Muhammad. Al-Nadīm’s representation is thus an act of cultural translation or even comparative religion.

In the next section in the Fihrist, religious practices of Buddhists are described. Different communities worship different representations of the Buddha. Al-Nadīm also explains this in lexicographical terms:

Al-budd is the generic term, while the idols (al-aṣnām) are like different species. The greatest budd looks like a man seated on a throne, with no hair on his face and with his chin and mouth sunk [close] together. He is not covered by a robe and he is as though smiling. With his hand he is stringing thirty-two [beads].

The passage illustrates the larger impact of Buddhism on Muslim literature about religion as “Buddha” came to represent Indian idols. Like many others, the author does not make a clear distinction between Buddhist and other Indians. Al-Nadīm elaborates:

A trustworthy person has said that there is an image of him in every house. These are made of all kinds of materials, according to the status of the individual. They are of gold adorned with different jewels, or of silver, brass, stone, or wood. They exalt him as he receives them, facing either from east to west, or from west to east, but for the most part they turn his back to the east, so that they face themselves towards the east. It is said that they have this image with four faces, so fashioned by engineering and accurate craftsmanship that from whatever place they approach it, they see the full face and the profile perfectly, without any part of it hidden from them. It is said that this is the form of the idol that is at Mūltān.47

Middle Eastern geographers of subsequent centuries were likewise fascinated by Multan. As a site of Hindu worship, however, it is beyond the scope of this survey.48

As in the case of the description of the statue sent by the Kabul Shāh to the Abbasid caliph al-Maʾmūn, al-Nadīm’s account provides a valuable contemporaneous source for scholars of Buddhist art who may not always have access to the corresponding objects themselves. Like Klimburg-Salter, Elverskog considers the detail that the represented figure was shown as sitting on a throne critical. He concluded that the object must have shown Maitreya.49 The four faces present a greater mystery and may point to upcoming trends in tantric Buddhist art which are not preserved in material objects. Elverskog speculates that the Arabic description captured tantric Buddhism in its emerging state, being the only premodern Muslim source to reflect tantric Buddhism at all.50 On the other hand, the account appears to contain blatant misinformation as well. The human sacrifice might simply be a polemical trope connected with idolatry and may have brought to mind pre-Islamic Arabic practices.51 On the other hand, the possibility of a misinterpretation remains as does that of an exaggeration.52

Al-Nadīm offered a precious snapshot during a period of especially rich cultural contacts, much of them represented and orchestrated by the Barmakids. The family’s fall after a decade of singular influence was steep, the reasons for it remain uncertain. The fate of the Barmakids even left traces in the Arabian Nights, the character Jaafar of the popular Disney adaptations being a “reincarnation” of an actual historical person.53 Elverskog sees in the fall of the Barmakids and the separation of economic zones in Eurasia the reasons for a split between Muslims and Buddhists and that Muslim knowledge of the regions and cultures east of the caliphate stagnated after the 8th century.54 As Buddhism shifted eastwards, opportunities for Muslims to encounter actual Buddhists disappeared. According to Elverskog, the shift to maritime trade too led to a decrease of personal exchanges that involved a transmission of significant and accurate knowledge about the other.

The early Abbasid period also saw the transmission of a very important Buddhist literary tradition to the Middle East. The Arabic version of the life of the Buddha known as the story of Bilawhar and Būdhāsaf (Arabic: Bilawhar wa-Būdhāsaf) is mostly preserved in two versions, a longer and a shorter one.55 The original Arabic version was presumably composed in the late 8th century, which is consistent with a general Abbasid interest in Indian religion and literature. Also consistent with general patterns of cultural history is the significance of a Middle Persian intermediary which has not come down to us. Some of the structural features of the preserved versions reflect larger trends at the time, in some cases inspired by Indian and Persian precedent. Hence, it is hard to establish which elements in the preserved versions were introduced at what stage. The significance of the Persian and Arabic adaptations of the story reaches beyond the Middle East since they led to the rise of the Christian legend of Barlaam and Josaphat.

Although Buddhist versions of the life of the Buddha are clearly recognizable in Bilawhar and Būdhāsaf, a number of differences reflect a Middle Eastern and Islamic reworking. Būdhāsaf, a name derived from boddhisattva, is the son of king Junaysar. Committed to idolatry, the king seeks to eradicate the rising monotheistic religion in his realm to which his son converts. These conflicts between religious communities and the oppression of the true faith may very well reflect the perspective of Shiite redactors. Several episodes in the story deal with conflicts at court and the function of courtiers who serve as go-betweens, are loyal, but also jealous and conspire. These are prominent subjects in Persian traditions which fed into Arabic literature, notably the mirror of princes genre. Structurally, characters often use parables for communication. Such embedded stories are likewise a feature of Persian influences as famously exemplified by the Arabian Nights. Theologically, a significant difference between the Buddhist and Islamic versions is the introduction of a teacher for Būdhāsaf, namely Bilawhar. Remarkably, the Buddha also appears in a second guise in Bilawhar and Būdhāsaf. Both father and son believe in al-budd, but they disagree about his message.

While the courtly setting of the story relates to the influx of Persian ideas into Arabic literature, the prominence of asceticism allows for the exploration of Buddhist influences on Sufism, especially during the first centuries of the tradition’s history. Such theories have been presented in particular for Ibrāhīm ibn Adham (d. 777), an early ascetic born in Balkh who migrated to Syria where he became involved in military operations against Byzantium. In later legendary biographies, Ibrāhīm turned into the ruler of Balkh who resigned to become an ascetic. His story spread into North India, Central and Southeast Asia and it may have been in the course of these later reworkings that Buddhist elements were included.56 The fact that similarities allowed for back-projections, however, is not grounds for dismissing the possibility that phenomenological similarities reflect actual contacts. Similarities between Yogic and Sufi traditions have also been noticed by others. Toby Mayer has presented a detailed argument for parallels between Kubrawī Sufism and Tibetan Yoga.57 Resemblances in spiritual practices complement conceptual similarities. According to Mayer, Sufis may have developed these traits in the Mongol period and in competition with Buddhists. (For the relationship between Sufism and Buddhism see also the second part of this article, “Muslim–Buddhist Relations from the Mongols to the Present.”)

Conflict and Knowledge

An important insight in the recent study of cultural encounters is that violent conflict and the acquisition of knowledge about the other often go hand in hand. The relationship between power and knowledge has been widely discussed for European colonialism of the modern period, notably in Edward Said’s Orientalism. Some scholars of premodern and non-European history have applied a similar paradigm to Eurasian encounters, including Muslim representations of India.58 The extent to which this analytical framework, the result of a critical perspective on modern Western hegemony, should be employed for other historical contexts remains controversial. There is, however, no denying the sometimes very close relationship between those who wielded the power of the sword and those who had the power of the pen. A case in point is the most famous premodern Muslim writer on India, al-Bīrūnī (973–c. 1050). He had already made a name for himself in various fields of knowledge, including as the author of a work on history, The Remaining Signs of the Past Ages, in English translation, also known as The Chronology of Ancient Nations. Al-Bīrūnī, who hailed from Khwarazm in Central Asia, commented briefly on Buddhism in this book.59 Later, he joined, perhaps not entirely voluntarily, the court of Maḥmūd of Ghazna. It was in the context of this iconic figure of Muslim aggression in India that al-Bīrūnī gained access to a much larger body of knowledge about the region, its history, culture, and science. Drawing on experts as sources, the polymath learned himself Sanskrit, a feat reflected in his Arabic translation of a key work on yoga, the Book of Patañjali.60 Historians of Buddhism frequently express disappointment upon noticing just how little al-Bīrūnī had to say about Buddhism in his most famous work, India (Arabic: Al-Hind). The observation he made may account for his silence: he could not find authorities on Buddhism in India. Then again, a current count of al-Bīrūnī’s works lists one hundred and eighty-four titles. He reportedly composed a treatise on the Bamiyan Buddhas which has not come down to us.61 What has been preserved of his comments about Buddhism may thus fall short of reflecting his knowledge. On the Buddhist side, the Kālacakra Tantra reflects a greater familiarity with Muslims as a result of these confrontations. (See the second part of this article, “Muslim–Buddhist Relations from the Mongols to the Present.”)

Al-Bīrūnī’s work appears to have been unknown to another important Muslim author on Indian religions. In his Kitāb al-Milal wa’l-niḥal (Book of Religious Communities and Beliefs), the Persian scholar al-Shahrastānī (1086–1158) provided the most detailed account of Buddhism written by a Muslim author before the Mongol period. The book has been variably described as a heresiography or a work of comparative religion.62 Modern scholars have offered different impressions of al-Shahrastānī’s work. Some argue that he does not seem to reflect any contemporary encounter with Buddhists. In fact, his account may even depend on information assembled for Yaḥyā al-Barmakī. Al-Shahrastānī had been born in Khorasan, where he spent most of his life, but he also went on a pilgrimage to Mecca and spent three years in Baghdad. He may have obtained his information about Buddhism in the center of the Abbasid Empire, but also closer to his own home. Bruce Lawrence identified some of the unique features of al-Shahrastānī’s account, including his lists of vices and virtues and explanation of the bodhisattva. Whether some of the inaccurate details are due to his own misunderstandings or owed to a source, Buddhist or Muslim, remains an open question. Al-Shahrastānī begins with a definition of the Buddha:

The Buddha, in their opinion, means a person who is not born, who never marries nor eats food nor drinks nor grows old nor dies. The first Buddha appearing in the world was named Shakaman, which means “the noble master.” Five thousand years elapsed from the time of his appearance to the time of the hijra.63

Both the explanation of the name and the dating are of unknown origin. Al-Shahrastānī then explains the bodhisattva, an addition to previous representations of Buddhism:

They assert that below the rank of the Buddha is the rank of the Budisaʾiya, the latter term meaning “the one who seeks the way of truth.” Indeed, one arrives at this rank only by (following certain measures for attaining moral discipline): patience and alms-giving; seeking after that which ought to be sought; abstinence and withdrawal from the world, and aloofness from its desires and pleasures; abstinence from what is forbidden; compassion for all created beings; avoidance of the ten offenses, which are: to kill any living creature; to consider it lawful (to seize) human property; to commit adultery; to lie; to utter calumnies; to use obscene language; to vilify; to slander; to say a stupid word; to deny reward (and punishment) in the afterlife; and adherence to the ten virtues, which are: to demonstrate goodness and generosity; to pardon those who offend and to overcome anger through patience; to abstain from worldly desires; to meditate on the deliverance of the soul from this transitory world to that eternal world; to exercise the intellect through knowledge and culture and much thought about the consequences of worldly things; to exert control over the direction of the soul, that it may seek after higher things; to be soft-spoken and courteous in speaking with everyone; to be kind in dealing with other men, so that their wishes become more important than one’s own; to turn away totally from created beings and turn totally toward the truth; to dedicate the soul to seeking and attaining the truth.64

The section concludes with further comments on the nature of the Buddhas—it is worth pointing out that al-Shahrastānī used the plural here:

This group maintains that the Buddhas came to them according to the number (of branches) of the Kil River, bringing them knowledge of the sciences and appearing to them in different kinds and as substances, the Buddhas appeared only in the families of kings. They claim that there is no difference among the Buddhas with respect to what has been reported of them about the eternity of the world and about their assertion concerning reward already noted.65

Finally, al-Shahrastānī notes the particularity of the Buddhas and finishes with a comparative note which reveals the lasting close connection between Buddhism and India:

The appearance of the Buddhas has been limited to India, however, due both to the wide variety of its creatures and climates and also to the many Indians who are intent on spiritual exercises and exertion. There is no one comparable to Buddha as they have described him—if they are right in that—except al-Khidr, whom Muslims recognize.66

The figure adduced here is a mysterious timeless traveler who enjoyed particular popularity among mystics, but also in other Muslim circles.

Lastly, there was another guise too in which Buddhists entered Islamic theological and heresiographical literature during these first centuries of encounters. Known as Sumaniyya, their reputation was as deniers of several key principles of Islamic thought, including prophecy. (For a more detailed discussion of the Sumaniyya and theological discussions see the second part of this article, “Muslim–Buddhist Relations from the Mongols to the Present.”) The extent to which the Sumaniyya, or another group known as the “Brahmins,” are a discursive figure of polemical literature is controversial in recent scholarship. One of the difficulties in determining Muslim attitudes to Buddhism is that some ideas associated with this religion are not unique to Buddhism. The belief in reincarnation is a good example, as is the tradition of caves as sacred spaces. The composition of specific religious landscapes facilitates disambiguation, but also invites circular interpretations. This challenge concerns matters of influence and whether certain Islamic schools and traditions might have absorbed Buddhist ideas and practices, but also polemical contexts.

A major difficulty also consists in determining to what extent Muslims conceived of Buddhists as a coherent group which coincided with self-identifying Buddhists. Did they, for example, identify those who worshipped the Buddhas of Bamiyan with the deniers of prophecy? As is often the case with cross-religious representations, the diversity within the described religion, here Buddhism, complicates the assessment of the description’s accuracy. Describing and described tradition are both dynamic, internally as well as in their mutual relationship. Recent authors have pointed out that Muslim authors showed no awareness of the rise of tantric Buddhism, but rather for centuries perpetuated first impressions.

Further Reading

  • Akasoy, Anna, Charles Burnett, and Ronit Yoeli-Tlalim, eds. Islam and Tibet: Interactions along the Musk Routes. Farnham: Routledge, 2010.
  • Auer, Blain, and Ingo Strauch, eds. Encountering Buddhism and Islam in Premodern Central and South Asia. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2019.
  • Elverskog, Johan. “Buddhism and Islam.” Oxford Bibliographies, May 5, 2017.
  • Elverskog, Johan. Islam and Buddhism on the Silk Road. Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 2012.
  • Flood, Finbarr B. Objects of Translation: Material Culture and Medieval “Hindu–Muslim” Encounters. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009.
  • Gimaret, Daniel. “Bouddha et les bouddhistes dans la tradition musulmane.” Journal Asiatique 257 (1969): 273–316.
  • Gimaret, Daniel, ed. Kitāb Bilawhar wa Budasaf. Beirut, Lebanon: Dār al-Mašriq, 1986.
  • Gimaret, Daniel. Le Livre de Bilawhar et Budasf selon la version arabe ismaélienne. Geneva, Switzerland: Droz, 1971.
  • Morgan, Llewelyn. The Buddhas of Bamiyan. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012.
  • Stern, S. M., and Sofie Walzer, eds. and trans. Three Unknown Buddhist Stories in an Arabic Version. Oxford: Cassirer, 1971.
  • Vaziri, Mostafa. Buddhism in Iran: An Anthropological Approach to Traces and Influences. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.


  • 1. For this and other terms, see Derryl N. MacLean, Religion and Society in Arab Sind (Leiden, the Netherlands: København, 1989), 3–4. See also Finbarr B. Flood, Objects of Translation: Material Culture and Medieval “Hindu-Muslim” Encounters (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), 26–37 for idolatry. The difference between Buddhist and Hindu objects is mostly secondary here.

  • 2. Johan Elverskog, Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road (Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 2012), 44.

  • 3. Donald S. Lopez Jr., Hyecho’s Journey: The World of Buddhism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017), 19 and 25.

  • 4. See, in particular, Christopher I. Beckwith, Greek Buddha: Pyrrho’s Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015). For discussions of ancient Greece and Christianity, see J. Duncan M. Derrett, “Consolation and a Parable: Two Contacts between Ancient Greece and Buddhists,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 65/3 (2002): 518–528.

  • 5. Erik Seldeslachts, “Greece, the Final Frontier? The Westward Spread of Buddhism,” in The Spread of Buddhism, ed. Ann Heirman and Stephan Peter Bumbacher (Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill, 2007), 131–166, 144 for Zoroastrian architecture and 150–151 for Manichaeism.

  • 6. Richard Foltz, “Buddhism in the Iranian World,” The Muslim World 100/2-3 (2010): 204–214; and in general Richard Foltz, Religions of Iran: From Prehistory to the Present (New York: Oneworld, 2013).

  • 7. Seldeslachts, “Greece, the Final Frontier?”

  • 8. Richard W. Bulliet, “Naw Bahār and the Survival of Iranian Buddhism,” Journal of Persian Studies 14 (1976): 140–145.

  • 9. Considering both Buddhism and Christianity are Warwick Ball and David Whitehouse, “Qalʿat-i Ḥaidarī,” Iran 14 (1976): 147–150; and Warwick Ball, “Two Aspects of Iranian Buddhism,” Bulletin of the Asia Institute of Pahlavi University 1 (1976): 103–163; stressing the significance of maritime Buddhism, see Warwick Ball, “Some Rock-Cut Monuments in Southern Iran,” Iran 24 (1986): 95–115; Gianroberto Scarcia, “The ‘Vihar’ of Qongqor-olong: Preliminary Report,” East and West 25/1-2 (1979): 99–104; and Mostafa Vaziri, Buddhism in Iran: An Anthropological Approach to Traces and Influences (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 80–88.

  • 10. For a similar example and issues of documentation, see Ingo Strauch, “Buddhism in the West? Buddhist Indian Sailors on Socotra (Yemen) and the Role of Trade Contacts in the Spread of Buddhism,” in Buddhism and the Dynamics of Transculturality: New Approaches, ed. Birgit Kellner (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2019), 15–52.

  • 11. Deborah Klimburg-Salter, “Cultural Mobility, a Case Study: The Crowned Buddha of the Kabul Shāh,” in Coins, Art and Chronology II: The First Millennium C.E. in the Indo-Iranian Borderlands, ed. Michael Alram, Deborah Klimburg-Salter, Minoru Inaba, and Matthias Pfisterer (Vienna: Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2010), 39–56. For the mobility of objects, see also Flood, Objects of Translation.

  • 12. Flood, Objects of Translation, 29.

  • 13. Markus Groß, “Buddhistische Einflüsse im frühen Islam?,” in Schlaglichter: Die beiden ersten islamischen Jahrhunderte, ed. Markus Groß and Karl-Heinz Ohlig (Berlin: Hans Schiler, 2008), 220–274; and Markus Groß, “Frühislam und Buddhismus: Neue Indizien,” in Vom Koran zum Islam, ed. Markus Groß and Karl-Heinz Ohlig (Berlin: Hans Schiler, 2009), 347–396. For a survey and discussion of these theories, see Anna Akasoy, “Islam and Buddhism: The Arabian Prequel?,” Entangled Religions 8 (2019): 1–32.

  • 14. Ernest Binfield Havell, A Handbook of Indian Art (London: John Murray, 1920), 106.

  • 15. More generally, see Debashish Banerji, “The Orientalism of E. B. Havell,” Third Text 16, no. 1 (2002): 41–56.

  • 16. Havell, Handbook of Indian Art, 107.

  • 17. Ibn al-Kalbī, Book of Idols; Being a Translation from the Arabic of the Kitāb al-Aṣnām, trans. Nabih Amin Faris (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1952), 43–47.

  • 18. Gardīzī, The Ornament of Histories: A History of the Eastern Islamic Lands, AD 650–1041. The Original Text of Abū Saʿīd ʿAbd al-Ḥayy Gardīzī, trans. C. Edmund Bosworth (New York: I. B. Tauris, 2011), 96. See also Richard H. Davis, Lives of Indian Images (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), 95, for the Muslim etymology of Somanātha as derived from the pre-Islamic deity Manāt. According to this explanation, worshippers of this deity left for India when Muhammad’s movement began to prevail in western Arabia.

  • 19. Audrey Truschke, “The Power of the Islamic Sword in Narrating the Death of Indian Buddhism,” History of Religions 57, no. 4 (2018): 406–435. For economic explanations, see Elverskog, Buddhism and Islam.

  • 20. See Elverskog, Buddhism and Islam. For a survey, see Xinru Liu, “A Silk Road Legacy: The Spread of Buddhism and Islam,” Journal of World History 22, no. 1 (2011): 55–81.

  • 21. Milka Levy-Rubin, Non-Muslims in the Early Islamic Empire: From Surrender to Coexistence (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011). For the case of the Buddhist monastery of Nalanda which came under Muslim rule in 1202 and where violent conquest narratives disguise realities of negotiation between Buddhist rulers and Muslim conquerors, see Elverskog, Buddhism and Islam, 2 and 49–50.

  • 22. Matthew S. Gordon, Chase F. Robinson, Everett K. Rowson, and Michael Fishbein, eds., The Works of Ibn Wāḍiḥ al-Yaʿqūbī: An English Translation, 3 vols. (Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill, 2018), 998.

  • 23. For this contrast and the complicated details of these events, see MacLean, Religion and Society, 1–4 and 65–66. For an analysis of the reception history of this episode and its historiographical context as well as a critical evaluation of the Chachnāma, see Manan Ahmed Asif, A Book of Conquest: The Chachnama and Muslim Origins in South Asia (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016). See also Finbarr Barry Flood, “Conflict and Cosmopolitanism in ‘Arab’ Sind,” in A Companion to Asian Art and Architecture, ed. Rebecca M. Brown and Deborah S. Hutton (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, 2011), 365–397.

  • 24. Davis, Lives of Indian Images, 88–112. For the significance of this incident in later political history, see also Romila Thapar, Somanatha: The Many Voices of a History (London: Verso, 2005).

  • 25. Arezou Azad and Hugh Kennedy, “The Coming of Islam to Balkh,” in Authority and Control in the Countryside: From Antiquity to Islam in the Mediterranean and Near East (6th–10th Century), ed. Alain Delattre, Marie Legendre, and Petra Sijpesteijn (Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill, 2019), 284–310, 291. For Daybul, see also Mehrdad Shokoohy and Natalie H. Shokoohy, “South Asia,” in Oxford Handbook of Islamic Archaeology, ed. Bethany Walker, Corisande Fenwick, and Timothy Insoll (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), 543–574.

  • 26. For this example, see Azad and Kennedy, “Coming of Islam.” The authors conclude that the Naw Bahār consisted of a temple complex which dominated the city, but gradually lost its functions and was eventually absorbed into post-conquest Balkh.

  • 27. For examples, see Flood, “Conflict and Cosmopolitanism in ‘Arab’ Sind”; Yohanan Friedmann, “The Temple of Multān: A Note on Early Muslim Attitudes to Idolatry,” Israel Oriental Studies 2 (1972): 176–182; Elverskog, Buddhism and Islam, 48; and Annette Schmiedchen, “Medieval Endowment Cultures in Western India: Buddhist and Muslim Encounters—Some Preliminary Observations,” in Encountering Buddhism and Islam in Premodern Central and South Asia, ed. Blain Auer and Ingo Strauch (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2019), 203–2018.

  • 28. Klimburg-Salter, “Cultural Mobility, a Case Study.” For further examples of such idols, see Elverskog, Buddhism and Islam, 67; and Flood, Objects of Translation, 26–37.

  • 29. Christopher I. Beckwith, The Tibetan Empire in Central Asia: A History of the Struggle for Great Power among Tibetans, Turks, Arabs, and Chinese during the Early Middle Ages (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987).

  • 30. For al-budd, its range of usage and the more direct etymological connection with “buddha,” see Daniel Gimaret, “Bouddha et les bouddhistes dans la tradition musulmane,” Journal Asiatique 257 (1969): 273–316, 274–276.

  • 31. Friedmann, “Temple of Multān.”

  • 32. For the literary imagery of bot, see Asadullah Souren Melikian-Chirvani, “Buddhism II: In Islamic Times,” Encyclopaedia Iranica, January 1, 2000; and William L. Hanaway Jr., “Bot,” Encyclopaedia Iranica, December 15, 1989.

  • 33. Yohanan Friedmann, “Classification of Unbelievers in Sunnī Muslim Law and Tradition,” Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 22 (1998): 163–195, 190; and Friedmann, “Temple of Multān,” 181.

  • 34. For the following, see Anya H. King, Scent from the Garden of Paradise: Musk and the Medieval Islamic World (Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill, 2017), 189.

  • 35. Friedmann, “Classification of Unbelievers,” 185.

  • 36. Sonja Brentjes with Robert G. Morrison, “The Sciences in Islamic Societies (750–1800),” in The New Cambridge History of Islam, Vol. 4: Islamic Cultures and Societies to the End of the Eighteenth Century, ed. Robert Irwin (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 564–639, 590–591, and 600–601. For medicine, see Oliver Kahl, The Sanskrit, Syriac and Persian Sources in the Comprehensive Book of Rhazes (Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill, 2015); and M. Shefer-Mossensohn and K. Abou Hershkovitz, “Early Muslim Medicine and the Indian Context: A Reinterpretation,” Medieval Encounters 19 (2013): 274–299.

  • 37. François de Blois, Burzōy’s Voyage to India and the Origin of the Book of Kalīlah wa Dimnah (London: Routledge, 1990); and Nasrullah Munshi, Kalila and Dimna, trans. Wheeler Thackston (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2019). For the Buddhist story, see Thackston’s introduction, xvi.

  • 38. Flood, “Conflict and Cosmopolitanism in ‘Arab’ Sind,” 371.

  • 39. Janina M. Safran, “Identity and Differentiation in Ninth-Century al-Andalus,” Speculum 76/3 (2001): 573–598.

  • 40. Kevin van Bladel, “The Bactrian Background of the Barmakids,” in Islam and Tibet: Interactions along the Musk Routes, ed. Anna Akasoy, Charles Burnett, and Ronit Yoeli-Tlalim (Farnham: Routledge, 2010), 43–88, 68–69 for the etymology of Barmak.

  • 41. Bulliet, “Naw Bahār and the Survival of Iranian Buddhism.”

  • 42. Christopher I. Beckwith, “The Plan of the City of Peace: Central Asian Iranian Factors in Early ‘Abbâsid Design,’” Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 38/1-2 (1984): 143–164, 146–150.

  • 43. Elverskog, Buddhism and Islam, 59.

  • 44. For this passage and further discussions of India and China, see Muḥammad ibn Isḥāq Ibn al-Nadīm, The Fihrist of al-Nadīm: A Tenth-Century Survey of Muslim Culture, trans. Bayard Dodge (New York: Columbia University Press, 1970), vol. 2, 826–842. (Translations quoted here are slightly modified.) For the Arabic, see Kitāb al-Fihrist, ed. Ayman Fuʾād Sayyid (London: Muʾassasat al-furqān lil-turāth al-islāmī, 2014), vol. 2, 423–437. For discussions, see Elverskog, Buddhism and Islam, 61–80; and Llewelyn Morgan, The Buddhas of Bamiyan (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), 105–110.

  • 45. Al-Nadīm and Dodge, Fihrist, 828.

  • 46. Al-Nadīm and Dodge, Fihrist, 831.

  • 47. Al-Nadīm and Dodge, Fihrist, 831–832.

  • 48. For geographical sources, see S. Razia Jafri, “Description of India (Hind and Sind) in the Works of Al-Iṣṭakhrī, Ibn Ḥauqal and Al-Maqdisī,” Bulletin of the Institute of Islamic Studies 5 (1961): 1–36.

  • 49. Elverskog, Buddhism and Islam, 76.

  • 50. Elverskog, Buddhism and Islam, 79–80.

  • 51. Elverskog, Buddhism and Islam, 63. See also Flood, Objects of Translation, 84–85, for finger sacrifice.

  • 52. For a comparison, see Abū Zayd al-Sīrāfī, Accounts of China and India, ed. and trans. Tim Mackintosh-Smith, published with Ibn Faḍlān, Mission to the Volga, ed. and trans. James E. Montgomery (New York: New York University Press, 2014). While al-Sīrāfī refers to cannibalism in China, Ibn Faḍlān describes human sacrifice among the Vikings. In both cases, the accounts seem plausible. See 83 and note 110 for al-Sīrāfī, and 249–251 for Ibn Faḍlān.

  • 53. Philip Kennedy, “The Fall of the Barmakids in Historiography and Fiction: Recognition and Disclosure,” Journal of Abbasid Studies 3, no. 2 (2016): 167–238.

  • 54. Elverskog, Buddhism and Islam, 82–87.

  • 55. Donald S. Lopez and Peggy McCracken, In Search of the Christian Buddha: How an Asian Sage Became a Medieval Sage (New York: W. W. Norton, 2014). For some of the stemmatological discussions, see Anna Martin, “Bilawhar wa Būdīsaf (Turfan fragment),” in Perso-Indica: An Analytical Survey of Persian Works on Indian Learned Traditions, ed. F. Speziale and C. W. Ernst (Paris: Perso-Indica, 2018).

  • 56. Tsugitaka Sato, “The Sufi Legend of Sultan Ibrāhīm b. Adham,” Orient 42 (2007): 41–54.

  • 57. Toby Mayer, “Yogic-Ṣūfī Homologies: The Case of the ‘Six Principles’ Yoga of Nāropa and the Kubrawiyya,” The Muslim World 100/2-3 (2010): 268–286.

  • 58. Richard Foltz, “Muslim ‘Orientalism’ in Medieval Travel Accounts of India,” Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses 37, no. 1 (2008): 81–95.

  • 59. Muhammad ibn Ahmad Biruni, The Chronology of Ancient Nations, An English Version of the Arabic Text of the Athâr-ul-bâkiya of Albîrûnî, trans. Edward Sachau (London: Oriental Translation Fund of Great Britain & Ireland by W. H. Allen, 1879), 188–189.

  • 60. Abū Rayḥān al-Bīrūnī, The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali, ed. and trans. Mario Kozah (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2020).

  • 61. See the Encyclopaedia Iranica articles on Buddhism in Iran in Islamic Times (for the lost treatise about the Bamiyan Buddhas) and on al-Bīrūnī (for the number of works).

  • 62. For a translation and detailed commentary of the section on the views of the people of India in the Kitāb al-milal wa’l-niḥal, see Shahrastānī on the Indian Religions, trans. Bruce B. Lawrence (Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton, 1976), 42–43 for the translation, 100–115 for the commentary.

  • 63. Shahrastānī and Lawrence, On the Indian Religions, 42.

  • 64. Shahrastānī and Lawrence, On the Indian Religions, 42–43.

  • 65. Shahrastānī and Lawrence, On the Indian Religions, 43.

  • 66. Shahrastānī and Lawrence, On the Indian Religions, 43.